TR Review: Paddington, Bearable
I never really liked Paddington Bear as a kid, and I’m honestly not sure why. I suppose it could have been his obsession with marmalade, which is now and always has been totally gross. Or my general unease with stop-motion – inanimate objects coming to life always seemed at least mildly disconcerting, and the old Paddington cartoons, while featuring drawings, had the primary bear be a stuffed toy that moved. (Having watched those old shorts recently, I now suspect that the humorous tone was simply too dry for me to understand at a young age.) When, following the release of the movie’s first teaser, people started creating horror memes using the CG Paddington, I confess I was not unsympathetic.
But now we have the movie, and it wants to be all things to all people, tonal clash be damned. At times, it tries to be a Wes Anderson film, what with the whimsical animated wallpaper and life-sized dollhouse sets. At others, it goes for the standard loud mayhem that big movie studios assume the kids today are into (it’s no longer enough for Paddington to make the bath overflow – he now has to fill the entire room with water and wind up surfing down the staircase in the tub). In other areas, it’s almost a comic-book movie, complete with a super-villain in Nicole Kidman whose creation was integral to our hero’s origin story.
I’m not as over-the-moon about the movie as some of my colleagues, whom I suspect may be grading on a curve; like the main character, it’s simply too messy to give full marks to. But in the end, Paddington gets by on its quintessential Englishness, and refusal to go full gross-out despite one or two moments that pander to us Americans. It’s a clumsy bear, this movie, but ultimately agreeable and even slightly cute.
In case you’re not familiar with a story that English children know as well as they do Winnie the Pooh, Paddington is an awkward little bear from deepest, darkest Peru who is sent to England in a manner similar to war orphans during World War II, with a tag around his neck reading “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” He’s taken in by the Brown family, who name him after the train station where they find him, and who ultimately adopt him as their own despite his constant accident-prone nature. As in the books, everyone just sort of accepts that a little bear can talk, which is as it should be – though the film does feel the need to partially explain it during an introductory vintage newsreel.
Ben Whishaw revoiced Paddington after Colin Firth left the project, and I think it’s for the best – Whishaw sounds like a child in a way that I can’t see Firth managing, and Hugh Bonneville’s Mr. Brown sounds too much like Firth already. Paddington certainly does not sound in any way Peruvian – overly politically correct writers can probably make hay with this decision – but his English accent is indeed explained, and his piercing stare remains intact, though it manifests itself at different moments than in the source material. Accent-wise, the more odd choices are to hire Jim Broadbent and get him to do a German-ish voice as antique dealer Mr. Gruber, and Peter Capaldi swerving between his natural Scottish and a more generic English as nosy neighbor Mr. Curry.
Beneath the obligatory mayhem, Paddington ultimately surprises by being more faithful to the original stories than one might expect, though since those were very episodic, they have to be tied together by a larger plot which involves the search for the explorer who first encountered Paddington’s relatives (an uncle and aunt amusingly voiced by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton) and a pursuit by evil taxidermist Millicent (Kidman), who facilitates one really clever sight gag and not much else. I don’t know that original author Michael Bond would ever have composed the weird gay panic gag involving Mr. Brown dressing in drag and being hit on by a creepy museum security guy, but alas, these things are part of obligatory “modernization.”
Not that she’s in any way objective, but my wife wanted to love the movie and did. Notwithstanding the fact that any movie in which a cute and furry thing wears a hat is 99% there for her automatically, this means they didn’t screw it up too badly. For parents, there’s likely to be a fair bit of relief that in the end, the story advocates good manners and friendliness. If the worst thing a film encourages your kids to do is hide sandwiches in their headgear, you’re probably doing okay.
Having subsequently rediscovered the original animated shorts that so turned me off as a child, I now find that I like them slightly better than this incarnation, although by being only a couple of minutes apiece, they’re just as geared to short attention spans as filmed sequences where Paddington finds himself accidentally skateboarding and parasailing behind fast-moving vehicles. The character may be chaotic, but the books radiate calm. The movie doesn’t really seem to want to do that, but in spite of itself it can’t help acknowledging that the stability of family is finally the best thing in the world.